I’m often asked what I believe to be the defining characteristic that distinguishes ‘cultures of thinking’ classrooms from other classrooms. Of course, the answer to this question is complex and nuanced, and difficult if not impossible to capture in a nutshell.
However, having been privileged to spend many years in the classrooms of outstanding teachers, both as a K-12 Director of Teaching and Learning, and now as a Teaching and Learning consultant, I have come to believe that there is one defining characteristic that oozes out of cultures of thinking classrooms from the very first moment you cross the threshold, an essential big rock for teachers keen to build a culture of thinking.
It’s a strategy for interaction that I like to call ‘Catch and Pass’ (adapted from Ritchhart, 2015; van Zee and Minstrell, 1997).
This Blog entry is part five of an eight-part series exploring 7 Big Rocks for Educators keen to build a culture of thinking in their classrooms.
As the name ‘Catch and Pass’ suggests, there are two parts to consider here – the catch, and the pass.
Let’s imagine we’re in a history lesson on Britain’s industrial revolution. Mr Paterson has just asked his class the following question:
‘What’s more important – economic profitability, or social welfare?’
Perhaps he allows a few moments for children to jot down their thinking so that they’re prepared for the discussion.
“OK,” he says, “what do you think?”
Hands shoot up. Charlotte has something to offer. “Economic profitability,” she suggests.
“Economic profitability,” repeats Mr Paterson. “What makes you say that?”
This is a good example of Catch and Pass in its simplest form. When Mr Paterson repeats Charlotte’s answer, ‘Economic profitability’, he ‘catches’ her response, showing her that he values her contribution. When he ‘passes’ back with the question, ‘What makes you say that?’, Mr Paterson presses Charlotte to justify and elaborate, cementing the expectation that this is a classroom where children will become young people who are able to explain their ideas.
Of course, catching does not always entail simply repeating what a student has said. In response to the question “What makes you say that?”, Charlotte replies:
“Well, if businesses don’t make money, then after a while they’ll fold, and people won’t have jobs to go to, which means they’ll have no money to pay for the necessities of life, so everybody’s social welfare will fall apart anyway."
Mr Paterson pauses for a couple of seconds. “OK, he says, “so if I’ve heard you right, you’re saying that without economic profitability it is impossible for society to thrive at all, since people won’t have the means to fund their lifestyles, right?”
Charlotte nods. Mr Paterson thinks for a moment. “Tell me more about why that means that economic profitability is more important than social welfare…?”
Here, since Charlotte spoke in more detail, Mr Paterson decided to catch by paraphrasing her thinking, checking with Charlotte that he had heard her correctly by asking, ‘right?’ Having confirmed that he had heard right, Mr Paterson passed back with another question, ‘Tell me more…’, pressing Charlotte to explain in more detail why her response constituted a considered answer to the question.
Back in the classroom, Charlotte takes a moment to think.
“Well, it’s like the chicken and egg situation,” she says. “What comes first…? So, if we’re going to have social welfare at all, we need to have a thriving economy or there will be nothing to pay for essential services, and if people don’t have jobs, there’ll be no money going into the economy to stimulate growth, and before long the entire economy will collapse, so it’s more important to ensure that an economy is profitable, which leads to the social welfare side of things looking after itself.”
More hands go up. One of them is Ian’s.
“For me, social welfare has always got to be the most important thing of all.”
“Social welfare is more important than economic profitability?”
“Well, like Charlotte said, economic profitability is important, but only because it’s in service of the people – the reason why we want economic profitability is so that people can lead happy, fulfilled lives.”
Mr Paterson pauses again. “What does all of this have to do with the Industrial Revolution?”
More hands go up.
“It reminds me of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act we were studying the other day.”
“Well, we were talking about how middle and working class people of the time resented giving money to look after the poor, and how they believed that the old Poor Law kept workers' wages low because employers knew that salaries would be supplemented by money provided by the Poor Law, so the Amendment Act stopped money going to the poor and sent poor people to the Workhouses.”
“Right, so the old Poor Law kept down worker’s wages because employers knew that the government would always be there to bump-up workers’ incomes,” says Mr Paterson. “What’s the connection between that and the question we’re pondering?”
James takes a moment to think. “Well, I guess it shows that you can’t really separate economic profitability and social welfare.”
“Can you explain your thinking for us?”
“Well, BLANKETY BLANKETLY BLANK.”
“OK, let me check I’ve heard you right. You’re saying BLANKETY BLANKETY BLANK, right?”
“That’s it, yes.”
“OK - and how might someone else look at that?”
In this phase, the catching and passing starts to result in some really deep thinking and powerful connection making. When he says, ‘Social welfare is more important than economic profitability?’, Mr Paterson catches Ian’s thinking, and then passes back with ‘Why?’ to press for further explanation. Soon after, Mr Paterson asks, ‘What does all of this have to do with the Industrial Revolution?’, passing back to Ian and the whole class with a big picture question designed to help them locate their discussion within the context of the historical subject matter being studied. When James responds with, ‘It reminds me of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act’, Mr Paterson catches and passes simply by asking, “How so?” Here, the catch move simply takes place inside Mr Paterson’s head – he chooses not to catch by paraphrasing, since on this occasion he feels like the pass question ‘How so?’ is sufficient to indicate to James that he has caught his meaning.
In the latter part of the dialogue, Mr Paterson asks a couple more highly challenging pass questions. The first, ‘What’s the connection between that and the question we’re pondering’, comes after a paraphrasing catch, and requires James to connect his thinking back to the original driving question. The second, ‘how might someone else look at that?’, follows a catch where Mr Paterson checks in with James to ensure he has heard him correctly, and presses him to look for alternative perspectives and interpretations.
Catch and Pass is a big rock in cultures of thinking classrooms. We may not use the thinking routine See Think Wonder every lesson, we may not use the thinking routine Generate Sort Connect Elaborate every lesson – in fact, it would be kind of weird if we did! – but we will use Catch and Pass every lesson, and that’s what makes it a big rock. Teachers in a culture of thinking choose to make time for Catch and Pass, because there are few approaches more effective at putting thinking front and central in the classroom.
It’s so easy as a teacher to become caught up in the victim mindset, ‘there just isn’t enough time’. I know this, because sometimes I’ve been the victim! In this mentality, where ‘getting through the content’ becomes our modus operandi, there just isn’t time for catch-and-pass, because I’ve already got more content to cover than there is time available, and I lost a double period last week when the art department took them all out on a gallery excursion again, and I can’t believe I’m losing them for another period next Tuesday when it’s cross country, and there just isn’t enough time…
Sometimes, when caught in this mindset, I’ve found myself thinking that it would be much easier to get through the stuff if the kids weren’t there to distract me. It would just be so much easier to get all that content covered if they didn’t turn up for class!
Nothing else sends children the message ‘I value your thinking’ quite like Catch and Pass does. In a cultures of thinking classroom, it’s a non-negotiable. As a big rock, we choose to make time for it every lesson. Of course, great teachers already use Catch and Pass every lesson, so here’s my challenge for readers of this article . . . What would it be like if you turned your next teaching day at school into ‘Catch and Pass Day’? I wonder what would happen if, for a whole day, you made a particular point of using Catch and Pass even more frequently that usual? What would be the payoffs, and what would be the challenges? I’d love to hear about your experiences…